On my Twitter feed recently, among commemorations of the Austro-Hungarian declarations of July 28, 1914, now recognized as the beginning of World War I, another anniversary was also briefly noted: Of Operation Gomorrah, on July 28, 1943, an aerial bombardment of Hamburg with incendiary munitions that ignited a firestorm leading to an estimated 42,000 civilians killed and the “de-housing” of 800,000 more. Royal Air Force Chief Marshal Arthur T. “Bomber” Harris had targeted the “workers” of the city as integral to the functioning of the German war machine, and over the course of three raids, his forces “got everything right.”
With events like the firebombing of Hamburg in mind, we may, to say the least, quite reasonably conclude that a world in which people like ourselves were never to be targeted, rather than targeted on purpose, would be a safer world, at least for us. We today recoil at the images, the ones that happen to make it to our TV screens and timelines, of desperate men, women, and children under attack at a hospital or school – or one hundred-story office building. To be “against that” poses no immediate difficulties for us, and the feeling of having spoken out or stood up “against that” will be relatively insusceptible to second thought.
Hussein Ibish, among the most eloquent spokespeople we have for modern liberalism as a value system, and in relation to the Middle East, captures this spirit of righteous and unquestionable second-thoughtlessness in a column written specifically against “disturbing grey areas” in our ideas of justice in war:
Simply asserting that one had a legitimate overriding intention (killing an “enemy combatant”), and that this renders moot the predictable if not inevitable consequences (the deaths of non-combatants), is repugnant to reason and universal human values.
Although obviously “better” than deliberate mass murder for its own sake, the moral validity of such arguments will be rejected by most people with indignation and contempt. Predictable, inevitable consequences are an essential criterion for culpability in the deaths of innocents.
Ibish would not be dismayed at being lined up in the opposition to Bin Laden – like almost everyone else. The problem is that everyone is rarely right – or, when almost everyone asserts a moral precept, it will almost always be because everyone feels the force of its opposite. We want to believe that “civilian combatant” is an oxymoron, if not an obscenity. According to Osama Bin Laden, Bomber Harris, and more than a few others – or at some point or another everyone, including Mr. Ibish – it is, or at least at significant moments in the history of a people will tend to be, a redundancy.